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November 27, 2014

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WATER:

‘Veterans deserve a natural green cemetery’

Legislators sponsor bill to preserve grass despite conservation pressure

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Tiffany Brown

American flags mark graves at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, which uses natural grass in its landscaping. Veterans cemeteries in other states have turned to xeriscaping and artificial turf as alternatives for the sake of water conservation, with resistance from some families.

To Mark Manendo, the ground cover that surrounds his father’s gravestone is fraught with meaning.

“Natural grass is a lot nicer than everything else,” said the assemblyman, who with Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, has introduced Assembly Bill 3 to require that the state maintain real grass around gravestones at veterans cemeteries. The bill would leave no option for desert landscaping or artificial turf.

“Veterans deserve to have natural green grass,” the Las Vegas Democrat said. “To me this is really a no-brainer.”

Manendo sometimes picnics on the grass at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, where his father is buried. The cemetery’s expanses of green overlooking a quiet sea of fluttering flags provide an escape from his xeriscaped yard, he said.

Six years ago the Las Vegas Valley Water District began aggressively pushing conservation. The effort included paying people to rip out their lawns and construction of the Springs Preserve gardens to push the notion that the desert, though different from the places where many nonnative Las Vegans used to live, can be pretty.

But even in the desert, even in a drought, even in the midst of an enormous conservation campaign, the emotional power of a blade of grass still runs deep.

“If we’re that god-awful desperate to rip out grass at a cemetery, a veterans cemetery should be one of our last resorts,” Manendo said. “Veterans deserve a natural green cemetery.”

Manendo and Hardy introduced the bill on behalf of the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Committee.

Nevada’s Veterans Services Office, which runs the cemetery in Boulder City and another in Fernley, has no plans to change the landscaping at its cemeteries.

Yet the veterans committee is concerned the state will take a cue from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, which has installed several desert-landscaped cemeteries.

The National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix is filled with native plants, such as saguaro cactus, desert marigold and purple aster, interspersed among pebbles and stones against what the VA describes as “a serene mountain backdrop.”

At Fort Bliss Cemetery in Texas, where the VA two years ago ripped out grass to create a desert landscape, the change has been controversial.

A rainstorm caused 400 graves to begin to sink, according to reports. And a committee of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Regrass Fort Bliss, sprung up to protest the change. The group wants to be able to “visit and pray in a real cemetery,” according to its mission statement.

Because of the bad publicity, xeriscaping is off the table in Nevada, said Nevada Veterans Services Director Tim Tetz. His predecessor brought up the idea in 2006 after visiting the Phoenix cemetery, but the commission that governs the department rejected the proposal unanimously.

“The reaction is that when you say veterans’ cemeteries, most people are going to think of the Punchbowl in Hawaii and Arlington Cemetery in Virginia,” Tetz said. “That’s what our society has come to understand as a veterans cemetery — stark white rows of perfectly aligned headstones that depict the heroes buried underneath them. That’s the vision across the nation.”

Until the 19th century, most American cemeteries were filled with tombs shoved together in forbidding, tight quarters. It was a site that refined Victorians deemed too gloomy and too, well, dead, historians say.

Starting in 19th century New England, the layout of cemeteries turned toward vast parklands full of vegetation.

“The idea is you’re not supposed to have to contemplate death all by itself,” said Peter

Stearns, a provost and history professor at George Mason University who wrote a history of death policies in the United States. “You’re supposed to have some surroundings that cushion the impact.”

On Wednesday, Tetz met with a VA official at the Boulder City Cemetery who brought up the notion of turning to Nevada-style “nature” to landscape the cemetery.

“I said, ‘Sir, I agree there’s a place and a time, but we are not going to go to xeriscaping in Nevada,’ ” Tetz said.

A VA experiment with artificial turf in California offers more promise, Tetz said.

At a Feb. 5 hearing on Manendo and Hardy’s bill, Tetz offered an amendment that would allow artificial turf in the cemeteries. Water rates for the two veterans cemeteries have increased 200 percent since the last legislative session, he told lawmakers.

“We always have to beg and fight for our budget and show historical water use, and there’s always the argument you can save somehow, but we can’t,” Tetz said. “We’ve got to keep the grass green and there’s always expectations.”

Manendo said allowing for artificial turf would violate the intent of the bill. Artificial grass is too hot and too expensive, he said. He also worries visitors wouldn’t be able to stick flags into the artificial turf.

“Everybody loves grass,” Manendo said. “Everybody is happy. Let’s keep it the way it is.”

Tetz rejected those complaints and said the state would not introduce artificial grass until it is more technologically advanced and cost effective.

On Wednesday, Charles McMahan of Las Vegas visited his father’s grave site at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in preparation for a Monday burial. He stood at the cemetery’s outskirts, where new graves still await grass. As the 80-acre cemetery fills out, workers will plant and water grass around the McMahan grave site.

An additional 48 acres of undeveloped desert in the cemetery awaits graves.

The process may have taken on some political urgency, but McMahan said the ground cover around his father’s grave was unimportant.

“I’m just happy he’s going to be here,” McMahan said. “It’s beautiful. I’m very impressed, and now I can come out and visit my dad whenever I want.”

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